Pandemic Musings Anthropocene: climate change, contagion, consolation
Sudeep Sen's Anthropocene is the third work on the subject by an Indian writer that I have come across in recent years, but it is truly sui generis. Sen does not refer to the earliest of these works on the subject that I've read—the eminent historian Dipesh Chakravarty's 2009 seminal essay, "The Climate of History: Four Theses," but Amitav Ghosh is present in Sen's 177-page book from its dust jacket cover endorsement of his work to Sen's penultimate chapter/section titled "Losing the Habit of Speech: Regaining the Habit of Reading," where Ghosh "tops the list" of works on climate change and the way we humans are endangering our planet by polluting it in all sorts of ways. Clearly, Ghosh's The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016) has impacted on Sen profoundly. But why is his own work in a class of its own?
One answer is Anthropocene's interlaced formal elements. The penultimate chapter is a kind of "recommended reading" list (which Ghosh heads) where, at the end, Sen tells his readers he has a preference for books in which "the strict dividing lines between fiction, non-fiction and poetry are blurred." His visually distinctive book goes beyond such generic boundaries by including as well The New York Times front page lead story news items, photographs composed by others, and his own photographic capture of the contagion that is climate change in his own city New Delhi, plus artwork that he has merged in his book with his verse and prose-paragraphs. In addition, quotations from leading thinkers and creative writers on the issue are interspersed throughout, composing a collage that is visually as well as poetically endearing in a way that has always marked the formal signature of the poet-artist that Sudeep Sen is.
Anthropocene thus stands out among the many works in many artistic genres printed or framed on walls in recent years in a world increasingly obsessed about doing something to redress the wrongs done to our planet by rampant humans bent on "progress" at the expense of all else because of its astute aesthetic arrangements. Beginning with a definition of the titular word (if we disregard the "Acknowledgements" and "Contents" pages), Sen moves on to a "Prologue" –subtitled "Meditation"—where he quotes aptly (as always!) the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo saying "I paint flowers as they will not die," thereby affirming the dictum he uses as the title of his inaugural meditations— "The role of the artist is not to look away."
Section 2 of Sen's book is called "Anthropocene: Climate Change" and is about the way weather patterns have altered the world with—to quote some titles and/or words from the poems included in it— "disembodied" and unreal visions, "global warming" and "rising sea-levels," "drought," "pollutions" and asphyxia." In addition, Sudeep Sen provides images of "ice-caps constantly corroding," "blighted brick buildings," unseasonal heat, devastating storms and "endless rain." Nevertheless, the section concludes with a poem titled "rain charm," and mentions life forms struggling but coping somehow with the afflictions climate change is creating all over the world.
Not surprisingly, then, Sen's next section is titled "Pandemic: Love in the Time of Corona." Sen presents poetically in it some consequences of climate change— "toxic tears" and lungs heaving and emitting "slow-grating metallic-crackles." The poet-artist prays, hoping for relief, despite the "ever inflating pandemic list" and a world struggling "with dry heat/of disease and pestilence." Nevertheless, "Covid's curse" must be met calmly and the lockdowns must be occasions for the thinking mind "to pause, reflect, love." True, the poet is reminded of Yeats's apocalyptic musings about "things" falling "apart" and "mere anarchy…loosed upon the world" as Indian television screens show migrants abandoned by unfeeling rulers onto highways. However, the poet-artist will make use of the lockdown to do his bit to "rejuvenate, revive" himself, and through his works, others. The task is not easy, for as Section 4's title, "Contagion" suggests, we are in the midst of a pandemic constricting human intimacy and inducing feverish thoughts. And yet and yet, as Sen puts it in a prose-poem of this section — "Sometimes even the most brittle seems to find some soft shape for hope". Great poets in particular inspire him for their inspirational verse—Seamus Heaney, for instance, with a line such as "If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere."
And it is with intimations of relief awaiting this muse-suffused one that Section 5 is titled "Atmosphere: Skyscapes." This section consists entirely of photographs Sen has taken of the sky from his terrace at the same time for a few days and is accompanied by sparse verse, the last of which indicates through its poetry the turning point of his composition Sen has used the skyscapes for— "listen to the stars—far, flung apart—elsewhere, nowhere, everywhere." His meditations may be epochal but are not apocalyptic anymore, being directed at the present more and more positively a well as spatially. The heading of Section 6 thus is— "Holocene: Geographies." Writing in St. Lucia and quoting one of his favorite poets Dereck Walcott, Sen concludes his second poem of this part of the book with the line, "At the end of this sentence, rain will begin." Wandering globally, Sen finds solace in nature's geological and geographical miracles, for despite the devastations of the Anthropocene age, they tell him, and as we too find out in this section's finale— "Life's dance continues—with or without us [humans]—only in the understanding of what is/is there freedom from what is."
It is thus that "Consolation: Hope" is offered for readers everywhere through Section 7. The poet now looks specifically at homescapes as well, for some of these are in Indian settings—Humayan's Tomb, the "Burning Ghats of Varanasi," or the site where Ganga is born. Dreamscapes beacon the poet too; meteors spark as metaphors here, for as the last poem of this section "Ash Smoke" underscores, "something still remains" from the devastations wrought in the age of the Anthropocene to be transformed into meaningfulness. Thus, though we learn from the caption of section 8, "Lockdown: Reading/Writing" the poet is now, literally homebound, his verse, including no doubt the ones in the present volume, flows, "letterforms and words/bloom, come alive". The times may be afflicted in many ways because of climate pollution, but the imagination of the artist must be "unframed and borderless". After all, one's imagination can't be" caged in speech"; "the poetics of solitude" may be invigorating for those who can use the pandemic constricting periods for reading and coming closer and closer to "the language and emotional intelligence that ultimately matters through Prayers" (the sub-title of Section 9 which is the Epilogue is "Prayers"!).
Sudeep Sen's meditations end thus with light bathing us; his imagination is in full flight now and the ending poems are illuminated with the hope that "all is one--/one is many/many is all." What began as waste land musings end with a shower of lyrics assuring us that there are moments of transcendence and light at the end of the gloom and doom induced in our lives initially but overwhelmingly at the onset of the pandemic. His Anthropocene offers lyrically and beautifully at the end a sustaining message for an afflicted world. This is a beautiful and uniquely conceived volume. I believe it will be pleasurable and consoling reading for those feeling constricted and afflicted at a time when the corona virus still seems reluctant to depart and for those doing so even afterwards.
Fakrul Alam is an academic, a writer and a translator based at the University of Dhaka.